The smell of something familiar wafted up his nose, not quite strong enough to awaken his sense of danger. Unwilling to part from the world of slumber, he turned his face into the pillow and buried his nose into the soft fabric.
But the smell permeated the cotton layers, mixing with the scent of vanilla shampoo, making his nose itch. It reminded him of burning rubber or charred toast.
Before he could make the connection, however, someone was shaking him urgently by the shoulder.
"Eli! Eli, wake up!"
Irritated, Eli forced his eyes open and squinted blearily at the intruder, a complaint ready on the tip of his tongue. Through his good eye, he could make out his mother's dark, wavy hair and the outline of her bathrobe. Her head was backlit by sallow light that spilled from the hallway through the open door of his bedroom, swathing her face in shadows.
"What is it, Mom?" he grumbled, suppressing a yawn.
"Don't you smell that, Eli?" Lei asked breathlessly to his right. His voice trembled – not from fear because Lei was never afraid of anything, not in all the years that Eli had known him. Instead of fear, he spoke with an undeniable teenage thrill.
Eli had to turn his head to see him properly. Lei was usually careful to stay on his left side, where Eli's vision wasn't hindered by a strange blurriness that distorted half of his world. The doctors had lamented that it was an irreversible birth defect; his mother had assured him that his eye would eventually improve. Eli wasn't sure how she knew, or if she was only saying that to make him feel better, but her quiet confidence had left no room for doubt.
In any case, the left side of Eli's bed was against the wall, leaving Lei to sleep on the floor to his right. With his head turned fully in Lei's direction, Eli saw that his friend was standing at the foot of a crumpled comforter.
For a moment, Eli wondered why – best friend or not – Lei was in his room at such an ungodly hour, until he remembered that Lei had stayed over to avoid the sudden storm that night.
But that didn't explain why Lei, in his rumpled t-shirt and pants, was wide-eyed and awake.
Eli yawned. Smoke rushed into his lungs, sharp and suffocating. He coughed, trying to peer around Lei into the dimly lit hall. "Is something burning?"
He barely wheezed out the question when his mother dragged him to his feet. Gripping Lei's arm in her other hand, she marched quickly to the door.
"Listen to me, boys. We need to get out of here. The house is on fire," she said. While the firm control in her voice was impressive, the calmness wasn't quite right. In it lurked something expectant, final, morbidly eerie.
But Eli didn't have time to reflect. He had more important things to worry about, namely whether or not he had heard his mother right. Maybe he was still dreaming. If this wasn't a dream and the house was indeed on fire…. A hundred questions burned on his lips. Who did it? When? How? Why?
His mother's deep frown and hard gaze doused his curiosity into silence. He followed her wordlessly.
"Come on. Hurry," she urged, releasing her death hold on the two boys as they neared the end of the hallway.
They hurried down the stairs in a frantic stomping of slippers and socks. The smell of burnt rubber worsened. Tendrils of smoke leaked through the cracks of the kitchen door: black, shapeless, ominous. Below, on the other side of the staircase, smoke gushed through the archway leading to the living room, smothering the floor and walls in a thick, dark fog.
"Stay on this side," said Eli's mother, leaning towards the kitchen.
Amidst the pounding of footsteps and the more erratic pounding of his heart, Eli could hear fire crackling. It seemed to come from the living room, perhaps right behind the kitchen door. At any rate, it was from somewhere in the back of the house.
Landing at the bottom of the stairs, Eli twisted around to peer into the living room. But the entrance was consumed by a black wall of smoke, so thick that he couldn't even discern the picture frames on the corridor wall. The fumes burned his eyes, grating his throat and nostrils.
"Move, Eli!" Lei pushed him forward, and Eli was forced to turn his attention away from the monstrosity that was destroying his home.
They scrambled for the front door. Snatching two jackets from the hooks on the wall, Eli's mother barked, "Eli! Lei! Get your shoes. Put them on later."
She thrust a jacket into each of their arms, then flung the front door open so abruptly that the frame rattled.
Eli was tempted to ask why they needed jackets when their house was on fire (besides, there were much more valuable things to salvage than well-worn clothes). If they were shielding from the spring chill that clung tenaciously to the midnight air, why is her jacket still hanging lifelessly on the hook? Why were her feet still hidden in white slippers?
Without warning, she shoved the boys out the door. Eli stumbled onto the lawn, nearly dropping his shoes and barely avoiding the dark roses by the walkway. He knew, before even looking back, that his mother was still inside.
"Mom!" Eli cried at the same time Lei called, "Mrs. Dlless!"
She stood at the threshold, her hair flickering deep red in the fire-lit room. In that moment, no words could express the depth of her emotions – serene, anxious, determined, afraid. Above all, she looked accepting, bearing a certain chilling fatalism that Eli didn't understand but dreaded.
Unconsciously, Eli took a step towards her. Lei grabbed his arm, shaking his head. "What are you doing?"
"My mom's in there," snapped Eli. "Let go!"
"Eli." His mother's voice sounded unnaturally loud against the fierce crackling of flames. "Listen very closely. I need to take care of something first. You go ahead. But no matter what, you must stay alive. Remember, you can…"
A sudden burst of fire erupted behind her, transforming the staircase into a blazing torch, incinerating her words into ashes lost to the wind before they could reach Eli.
"…the future. Now go!"
The door slammed shut.
"Wait! Mom!" Eli wrenched his arm out of Lei's grip, leapt across the lawn, and rattled the doorknob. But the door refused to open. His mother had locked it.
By some mysterious work of nature, the foyer where they had hastily gathered their jackets and shoes exploded into flames. It seemed almost impossible for the fire to leap from the back of the house to the front so quickly, but Eli had more urgent concerns than to work out the physics.
Lei grabbed Eli's wrist, jerking him away from the door. "Eli! We have to get out of here! Come on!"
As Eli staggered along, he saw his mother's back through the smoke-fogged window. She stood in the center of the room, surrounded by a ring of fire that grazed the ceiling. A dark silhouette, tall and lean, emerged from hell's inferno.
Eli debated for a split second whether or not to escape. Despite the anxiety and fear choking him, his mother's warning echoed like a distant siren.
You must stay alive.
Tearing his gaze away from the door, Eli staggered across the lawn with Lei in tow. His eyes prickled from smoke and tears. The world reeled out of focus, going around and around like a kaleidoscope.
"This way," said Lei. He took Eli's wrist again with a firmness that might have hurt if Eli hadn't succumbed to a cold numbness. Together the two boys ran across the street, one leading, the other blindly following.
Once they were safe, they turned around, silently watching the fire tear across the porch, swallow the front door, consume the house until it was one massive ball of red and orange light. In the dead of night, the fire raged and seethed like waking demons.
But there was something wrong with this picture. Something missing. It tugged at Eli's consciousness insistently, until he realized…
It was too quiet.
"Where…" he began. "Where's the fire truck? The police?"
A sudden surge of panic sprung up in him, as if that element of expectation had been the knife to slice through the numbness. He gripped Lei's arm urgently.
"We need to call the fire department! Why hasn't anyone called the fire department?"
"I don't know." Lei observed their surrounding critically. He had always been the more composed one. Even now, faced with a fatal crisis, the only signs belying his fear were the shadows in his bright eyes and the tight clench of his jaw.
Barely suppressing his hysterical, Eli watched with him. For the first time, he was aware of how still the neighborhood was. The houses up and down the street were dark and lifeless. Not a lingering whisper disturbed the night. The fire seemed to be the only thing alive in the dead air.
What's going on? thought Eli. Bile rose in the back of his throat, and he swallowed uneasily.
Suddenly, Lei spun around and bounded for the house behind them. "The neighbors! We can use their phone to call the fire department!"
Eli was about to follow when something sharp and hot pierced his upper arm. He instinctively turned to the source, a wave of pain pulsing through his head as if somebody had hit him with a bat. He squinted into the darkness, but the empty streets were blurrier than usual, and yes, he was looking through his good eye, and in spite of his tears everything shouldn't be growing dimmer and dimmer…
He heard Lei running towards him. Then darkness fell.
Melanie's eyes snapped open. Her heart was racing; her forehead was damp with cold sweat. She swallowed thickly, lowering her staff as visions of a wild fire vanished before her. But the magic lingered: two very different magic. One of them had gone out like a light.
The circle of candles flickered as she swung the staff around, standing it on its end. A white glow continued to pulse over the staff, illuminating the head where five wavy rays encircled an orb with an eye in the center. The light ran down the length of the staff, skimming across strange symbols in the burnished gold.
Melanie breathed deeply and forced her hands to stop trembling. It was one of the few times that she had voluntarily peered into the future. Often the visions came in dreams, fragmented pieces that appeared spontaneously. Sometimes they made no sense; sometimes, they were startlingly clear. Recently, however, her dreams had been filled with blood and chaos, and in the center of destruction was always the shadow of a bridge penetrated by two gruesome towers that rose like double crosses.
It meant the countdown to the Day of Revolution had begun. She wondered if the battle, one that would decide the fate of the world, would be decided there. She was not involved by choice; her role had long been decided by fate.
Melanie's dreams predicted that tonight was the night the Master Magician would appear. At last, she would meet the one whom wielded the power to change destiny.
Letting the staff vanish in a spray of silver light, Melanie recalled the images that she had seen. The spell she had invoked was more powerful than the occasional, fragmented visions. Foreseeing the time and place, she had opened a portal onto the present and watched the prophesized events transpire.
A part of her wished that her visions had been wrong. But the fire had indeed struck, the house gone, the woman…
What had happened to the woman? One moment, her magic was tangible; the next, it blinked out as if it had never existed. Even if she had (Melanie shuddered) died, her magic should have remained.
Melanie's brows knit together. It was also strange that she wasn't able to see past the flames that surrounded the other person inside the house, something she could have easily done had it been a natural catastrophe. It was as if the fire had been a barrier that blocked her probing magic.
Could it be them? she wondered. After all, she couldn't possibly be the only one to sense that impending day.
If it had been them, and if she knew… The woman's face, solemn and resolute, flashed before Melanie's eyes. What exactly happened?
Maybe the Master Magician knew. Melanie's heart fluttered at the memory of the boy with golden hair and soulful, brown eyes. Admittedly, she had been surprised to learn that the Master was so young and had fleetingly wondered if he could carry the burden of the world. But Melanie clamped down on her doubt guiltily. It was not her place to judge destiny's decision.
What bothered Melanie was why the Master Magician didn't stop the fire. Surely he had the power. Perhaps he had been preoccupied? Or perhaps the fire wasn't as dangerous as it seemed?
The possibility that the Master Magician didn't care enough to make an effort crossed her mind. Melanie would be lying if she said that she had never feared for the Master Magician to turn out as an arrogant, insensitive jerk. Worse still would be if the Master Magician abused his magic, an easy trap to fall into when his strength was paralleled by none but one other's throughout possibly all worlds.
Melanie shook her head. No, she believed the Master Magician had his own reasons for non-interference.
Her thoughts cracked under the familiar shuffling of socked feet, the soft knock on wood, the slow turn of the rusty knob. Melanie waited. Behind her, her reflection leaned against the door frame, thin arms dangling at her sides in a manner much too forced. Straight brown hair, a pointed face, gray eyes, and thin lips stared at Melanie. But this reflection, despite passing for her doppelganger, possessed a different soul whose loyalties lay elsewhere.
"You saw it too, didn't you?" said Phoebe quietly.
Melanie didn't reply. Instead, she walked up to her twin and hugged her, feeling her blood sister stiffen before slowly returning the embrace with a strangled note. "It's time to go back."
End Notes: Thank you for reading. If you could take the time to answer the following, I'd much appreciate it: How did you feeling about this first chapter? Could you connect with the characters? Did the story start off too fast and more time should be allotted (perhaps before the fire) to flesh out the story background?